Rare 1920s physical culture program discovered among bombs during Sydney home renovation

Home Arts Rare 1920s physical culture program discovered among bombs during Sydney home renovation
Rare 1920s physical culture program discovered among bombs during Sydney home renovation

Robert Laycock was helping renovate a home in a Sydney harbourside suburb when he found rare memorabilia from a 1920s physical culture performance hidden beneath the floor — and several old mortar shells.

While the explosive discovery brought out the bomb squad and put a temporary stop to the renovation, it was the unearthing of a Bjelke-Petersen School (BJP) of Physical Culture program from 1924 that drew lasting attention.

“It looked like it had just been discarded under the floor in an old area,” Mr Laycock said.

“It was covered up in the sand and it was very dry under there and had been well preserved.”

A black and white image of Physical culture women in dresses and ballet shoes in a public area in Sydney.
A physie display at Sydney’s Martin Place for Health Week, which was held during the 1920s to 1960s.(Supplied: BJP Physical Culture)

Physical culture, known as physie, is a popular dance sport, involving a range of dance styles aimed at increasing strength, fitness and flexibility.

It was established in Australia by Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen, from Denmark, in 1892. 

Ashes update among bombs

Further excavation work revealed other striking discoveries, including newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s, including one featuring an update on the 1930 Ashes Test, as well as the mortar shells.

An old mortar bomb, sitting in sandy soil.
One of the old mortar shells discovered.(Supplied: Robert Laycock)

“[The suburb] Bellevue Hill is built on sand … we found quite a number of artefacts,” Mr Laycock said.

“We also found bombs in the backyard, so it was quite an interesting find.”

He said the bomb squad and authorities closed the site down and removed the ammunition.

“They are telling us it was probably from back in World War II,” Mr Laycock said.

“It was just stored there. It looked like an ammunition dump … buried down in the sand.”

A faded 1930 newspaper with information about a cricket Ashes Test underway and old photos.
An old newspaper from 1930 featured information about a cricket Ashes Test.(Supplied: Robert Laycock)

‘Invaluable’ physie discovery

Mr Laycock’s son’s mother-in-law, Marion Cadman, from Sydney, is involved in physical culture so he passed the old six-page program onto her.

A page from a faded and torn old dance program from the 1920s.
The program provided valuable historical information the sport’s Australian evolution.(Supplied: Marion Cadman)

“Most of the pages are in good condition,” Ms Cadman said.

“You can read it pretty well [and] I thought it was an amazing find.”

Jackie Rawlings, one of BJP’s directors, said it was a “very exciting” discovery as it helped fill gaps in the sport’s documented history.

“To us, this find is invaluable because during the 130-year BJP history there has been two office fires, so twice the archives have been lost — once in the ’20s and once in the 1990s,” she said.

“When it was our 125-year anniversary, we were trying to do all the research to produce a book on our history and it was very hard to find information … we know there’s a lot we don’t know.

“So when something like this turns up, it’s just brilliant … it’s a real snapshot of 1924.”

Women stand in lines with their arms out, doing exercises on the lawn of a school in the 1920s.
An early physical culture display at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Sydney.(Supplied: BJP School of Physical Culture)

Women get involved

Ms Rawlings said at the time of the program’s 1924 Sydney Town Hall performance, women were relatively new to physical culture, which was initially for children and men.

A black and white image of a line of women wearing skirts and long sleeve tops holding their hands out.
Women started to participate in physical culture in the 1920s.(Supplied: BJP Physical Culture)

“Physie was taught in the business houses around Sydney, places like Nestle and David Jones, Anthony Hordern & Sons … and women started to be allowed, if you like, to start doing classes of physical exercise and dance,” she said.

“Christian’s [the founder’s] philosophy was that every single Australian should be healthy and robust.

“He was against women wearing corsets and having to just sit and do embroidery.

“He wanted them to get into loose-fitting tunics and to start really getting their bodies moving and becoming healthier and fitter.”

Women take over

BJP physical culture continued to evolve and over time the involvement of men stopped.

A black and white image of a line of women wearing long sleeved leotards and tights and dance shoes.
A 1960s performance of physical culture, which has evolved over the years.(Supplied: BJP Physical Culture)

“With both of the World Wars the men dropped out of it basically. There were so few male teaches and RSL clubs introduced gymnasiums, which were cheaper,” Ms Rawlings said.

She said physical culture by then was being taught in church clubs, which was for women and their daughters.

A black and white page from a physical culture program in 1924, with photos of women in tunics dancing and in groups.
The 1924 physical program contains a wealth of information about the sport’s history.(Supplied: Marion Cadman)

“It was deportment and marching, folk dancing,” Ms Rawlings said.

“So once physie died out really for boys and men it became taken over by the girls and women in the church clubs … and some of those still exist today.”

Ms Rawlings said the old program found beneath the Bellevue Hill house would be archived to preserve the sport’s rich history.

“People often send old medals in,” she said.

“They’ll unearth a medal in their grandma’s drawer or something like that, but these kinds of documents are much rarer.”

Young women dancers perform on a stage, in bright coloured tights and crop tops.
BJP physical culture performers in a 2021 competition.(Supplied: BJP Physical Culture)

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